GONZALES — While dark and rainy skies loomed Monday, Ascension Parish residents gathered to remind those affected by domestic violence that there is a light amid the darkness.
Iris Domestic Violence Center’s held its annual Take Back the Night event at East Ascension High School, in recognition of October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
The yearly event, which usually takes place at Jambalaya Park, was moved to the school’s gym because of the inclement weather.
“We do this each year to honor those who have lost their lives to domestic violence and to celebrate those who are survivors,” Iris Executive Director Lynne Medley-Long said. “We also want to connect those across the country trying to fight against domestic violence.”
One in four women in the U.S. is a victim of domestic violence, Medley-Long said. Over the last year, she added, Louisiana documented 57 homicides related to domestic violence, six of which occurred in the Capital area and one of which happened in Ascension Parish.
“The Capital Area does have a problem, and it’s time we stand up, speak out and take back the night,” Medley-Long said.
Based in Baton Rouge, Iris Domestic Violence Center serves seven parishes in the Metro Baton Rouge area: Ascension, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana.
Monday’s event was one of five taking place in Iris’ service area during October.
During Monday’s ceremony, members of East Ascension’s Interact Club lit candles to remember the men, women and children affected by domestic violence.
The students also read aloud the names of the 57 Louisiana residents killed in domestic violence cases last year, with audience members raising a silhouette bearing a victim’s name as it was read.
One local survivor of domestic violence, 27-year-old Kenyia Houston, recalled for the first time publicly her battle against domestic violence. She documented an abusive relationship with her then-boyfriend, which nearly took her life and that of her unborn child.
While she was 25 and eight months pregnant, Houston said, her former boyfriend shot at her while she left her home for work. She was wounded in the gunfire, causing her to crash her car into a tree. Her child had to be delivered that day, 6 ½ weeks premature. Her boyfriend was arrested and convicted of attempted second-degree murder and attempted feticide.
Houston urged anyone who feels they are experiencing domestic violence to take action to remove themselves from the situation, including contacting law enforcement.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “There are resources.”
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said that Houston relating her experience shows just how real domestic violence situations can be.
“It’s real in Ascension Parish,” Wiley said. “There’s people dying here. We’ve had a body count here the past two or three years here. I don’t put my head in the sand about it.”
Wiley referenced the most recent such case, where a Geismar man is accused of allegedly beating his wife to death. He also referred to comments he made to area media that women can be survivors in such situations if they empower themselves before it is too late.
The sheriff said that the rise in domestic violence cases in the parish led to the creation of Operation S.A.V.E., which stands for Survivors and Victim Empowered.
The unit, headed by Sheriff’s Office employee Pam Richardson, focuses on domestic violence cases by tracking down suspects when warrants are issued and processing cases so that protective orders can be instituted.
“We’ve prioritized them as much as we have a murder warrant,” Wiley said of the temporary restraining orders, adding that his office serves between 80 and 100 orders per month.
“Our motto is that nothing falls through the cracks,” he said. “We’ve found a lot of cracks, but we’re filling them in and making sure that when someone needs us, we’re going to be there not in five minutes, five hours or five days, but in five damn seconds.”
Wiley closed his presentation by relating something he instilled in his own two daughters — the importance of obtaining an education and learning a craft.
“It doesn’t matter what the education is in, so long as you learn a craft and you won’t be dependent,” he said. “Because if your dream man turns into a nightmare, you need to get out of that.”
Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux reminded the audience that communication is key in preventing possible domestic violence situations.
“If you feel a situation is not safe, do not hesitate. You call somebody,” he said. “If you can’t reach a family member or counselor, you contact law enforcement.”
Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson said that as laws against domestic violence toughen, so should the community’s stance.
“We have to educate women on how to protect themselves and how not to be scared,” he said. “We’re headed in the right direction, but we can do better as a community.”
The night also included musical performances by Dutchtown High School Band members, as well as emcee Jenny Heroman singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song dedicated to the victims of domestic violence.
Iris operates a 24-hour crisis hotline, (800) 541-9706, and emergency shelter.
Call Iris Domestic Violence Center at (225) 389-3001 or visit stopdv.org.